What do you want? A medal?

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Happy New Year’s Honours! In fact, unhappy, as this country’s preposterous awards system always riles me when the gongs are handed out like sweets. I heard Barbara Windsor, or Dame Barbara Windsor, cooing about hers on the news and stating, for the record, that she is a dyed-in-the-ermine royalist. Fair enough. I think Barbara Windsor should wear her damehood with pride; it’s clearly the highest honour the nation could bestow upon her for her acting and charity work. For the record, I do not think Barbara Windsor should have refused her New Year’s Honour. What I do think is that the whole prizegiving ceremony is based upon a rotten premise: the British Empire. Call it an MBE if you like, Goldie, or an OBE if you like, Damon Albarn, but its full title contains the words “of the British Empire.” Remember that? Of course you don’t. When dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his Order of the British Empire in 2003, he was very clear about why:

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised … Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way, Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire.

Now hear this: I think the refusal of a medal based upon the British Empire and all the brutality that historically goes with it is a matter of personal preference. For instance, I think it is heartwarming that ordinary Britons are recognised for their work in the community, and for charity, and in the care of others – everyday heroism, let’s call it, which I understand accounts for 76% of the awards handed out – and I would not expect any of the good people today honoured to do anything other than gracefully accept. Michael Pusey, 41, who receives an MBE as the voluntary founder and head coach of a BMX park in South London, for instance, who I saw on the news yesterday. He should be proud.

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But why are we still giving out medals of the British Empire, please? They are, after all, for “chivalry”, according to the small print, and are divided up into “commanders” and “officers”, all of which smacks of colonialism and militarism. The Empire itself has been over since the Second World War. Britain hasn’t ruled the waves for some time. And when the Union flag was lowered in Hong Kong in 1997, that ought to have been the perfect time to rename and modernise the otherwise theoretically positive giving of credit where credit’s due. But there are fundamental, infrastructural and symbolic things wrong with the Honours system as it blindly lumbers on in breeches and riding boots as if Victoria is still on the throne and viceroys are still teaching the natives cricket in far-flung outposts of a global occupation built on profit and exploitation and slavery. We’re all Team GB now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t our prizes be similarly freshened up for the 21st century? If you are unable to scrub the years of blood off those medals, perhaps try a coloured ribbon, or a certificate, instead?

If the recognition being heaped upon Damon Albarn, and Idris Elba, and Chris Froome, and James Nesbitt, and Dr Michael Jacobs the consultant who treated three Britons with Ebola, was rebranded, and perhaps expunged of all the politics, it would be something we could all be proud of. Forget honorifics and titles and chivalry. Bollocks to Sir and Dame Grand Cross and KGB and all that forelock-tugging cobblers. Reward good service, beyond the call of your job description (which cancels Tory spin doctor Sir Lynton Crosby for a start), and by all means give the winners a free buffet at Buckingham Palace in their Sunday best. (I was twice invited to charity events at 10, Downing Street, and jumped at the chance to get inside the building, have a free drink and set aside any problems I had with Gordon Brown’s leadership of a busted Labour party. You can go to the Palace without becoming a royalist – Jeremy Corbyn did and escaped with his republican soul. But none of us in 2015/16 needs or wishes to be associated with the East India Company running opium out of China in the 18th century, surely?)

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If the Empire part had been ditched when Britain had to give back India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Palestine in the 40s, we might not be looking at such a long and illustrious list of recipients who turned down their Honour throughout this nation’s most creative, innovative and progressive decades in the latter half of the 20th century and into this one: (in no particular order and only a partial roll-call) Francis Bacon, John Cleese, JB Priestley, Michael Foot, Alan Bennett, David Bowie, Danny Boyle, Rudyard Kipling, LS Lowry, Michael Faraday, Alistair Sim, Mark Rylance and AJP Taylor, who understood his history. Even Keith Hill, Blairite apologist and my local MP in Streatham when Britain invaded Iraq (and yes I did write him an angry letter), turned down a knighthood in 2010, saying, “My fundamental reason is that I have never had the least desire to have a title. I don’t want to be discourteous, but I find the whole idea a little embarrassing and too much for me.” Good on him.

Luckily, even if I devoted myself to do seven-days-a-week charity work for the rest of my life, I doubt I’ll be getting the letter on my doormat, so I will never get the chance to prove that I would turn down an Order of the British Empire, but I would. I remain uncomfortable about those I admire who have let their desire to give the family a nice day out eclipse their principles. For me, the whole thing is hypothetical. Allow me to enjoy that on this tainted day.

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Ironically, the staunchly establishment Daily Mail, whose management uniquely pine for the simpler times of the East India Company and good, honest imperialism, used the headline, “TAINTED NEW YEAR HONOURS” today, using the example of Jacqueline Gold, CEO of the Ann Summers chain, as an unsuitable CBE, presumably because she reminds them that there is a thing called sex. Tainted the British Honours system may be, but not by the recognition of a strong, successful, independent woman who sells handcuffs and other bondage items for fun, rather than actual slavery.

 

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Dear Jim

Diary entry: Saturday, 1 January, 1977
Made a Lego house in the morning. Watched Swap Shop. Watched Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory in the afternoon, after playing Monopoly. New series of Jim’ll Fix It and Dr Who. Watched Starsky And Hutch.

Jimmy Savile, or Sir Jimmy Savile as he officially remains for now, died less than a year ago, on October 29, 2011, two days before his 85th birthday. His body lay in state, in a gold coffin, at the Queens Hotel in Leeds, and 4,000 people lined up to pay their respects. When he died, his secrets died with him. Or at least, they did in theory. Unfortunately, since his death, a number of people have come forward to say that they were abused by him when they were children. Since ITV’s Exposure documentary aired on Wednesday, more have lined up to join them and add to the cacophony of complaint against his good name. I’m not a detective, but when such a broad catalogue of independent testimony corroborates itself in this way, it’s hard not to find the evidence compelling.

The disturbing picture emerging is of a depraved sexual predator with a penchant for girls of around 15 who used his power as a national treasure, a figure on the pop scene, and the host of television shows aimed at children to get what he wanted. By all accounts, he pulled the egregious trick of frightening his victims into keeping quiet, and filling them with shame for something he had perpetrated. By preying on troubled girls from an approved school in Surrey, he exploited a bond of trust between himself and the institution, in much the same way that paedophile Catholic priests use the sanctity of the church to have their way with altar boys.

I only ever sent one letter to Jim’ll Fix It. It was in 1976. I asked Jim – or “Jim’ll” as we jokily called him – to fix it for me to meet my hero, the Daily Express cartoonist Giles, so I could show him my own cartoons. (As related in my book, I even drew some Giles characters on my letter and used coloured pens on the envelope – as if no Jim wannabe had ever thought of that before.) It was all for nothing; I never got a sniff. But then neither did my brother Simon and he’d asked “Jim’ll” to fix it for him to visit the Action Man factory, which ought to have been right up the programme’s street with their appetite for subliminal advertising.

In later, more self-conscious years, I identified Jim as an establishment figure of whom I did not approve, when, after the video of the late Sid Vicious performing Something Else on Top of the Pops, Savile warned the nation not to ride a motorbike without proper protection.

It turns out that he was the one who we should have been warned about. The BBC is under fire, from the usual anti-BBC quarters, for its part in “turning a blind eye” to what Savile seems to have been doing on their premises, in dressing rooms at Television Centre when Jim’ll was the king of early evening BBC. No chatter about how different our attitudes to paedophilia were then, in the 60s and 70s, can lessen the gruesome impact of what we’re now learning. This does not mean anybody covered it up. Savile was a superstar in the 60s and 70s, his creepiness all part of the eccentric nature of his persona – which, if later documentaries about him, particularly Louis Theroux’s, present a realistic picture, were extensions of his actual character. He did an awful lot of work for charity, and this seems to have been his cloak of protection. It’s entirely possible that people he worked with simply couldn’t believe he’d put his hands where they weren’t wanted.

I never met him. But when I first worked at the BBC, in the early 90s, I heard “rumours” about him that were pretty ugly. Funnily enough – or not very funnily enough – the rumours I heard were different from the ones that are now coalescing into testimony and possibly fact. I wouldn’t say they’re worse, but they are equally repellent on an entirely different level. They don’t involve under-age girls. When people say it was “an open secret” that he was a bit of a pervert, this incriminates anyone who heard the whispers. The entertainment industry has its own folklore of dirty stories about well-loved celebrities; with the way the tabloids have worked for the last few decades, you do sort of think: well, if they’re true, they’d have come out by now, surely? I never heard the stories about Savile’s penchant for under-age girls.

If you can assassinate a dead man, that’s what happening right now. Savile’s legend has been rewritten. Those who always found him creepy – which is most of us – can now congratulate ourselves for having spotted that he was a wrong’un, and yet, how brilliant are we for doing that after hearing first-hand accounts of his wrongdoing? It’s interesting that Kenny Everett, another much-loved and wacky Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops DJ, has been celebrated this week, and depicted as a man haunted by the “shame” of his own homosexuality, although I assume that in liberal corners of entertainment, this was not condemned, but accepted. Concerning this “open secret”, we posthumously sympathise with and applaud Ken for battling on, because it was he who was damaged by Victorian attitudes to a legal lifestyle choice. (I say “we” applaud him; I’m sure a lot of purple-faced, Mail-reading colonels in the home counties still think being gay is an affront to nature, but who cares about them.)

If Savile was a serial molester of children, then he deserves to have his plaque and his statue taken down, for he died without ever being found out or punished for ruining so many lives. We didn’t even use the term paedophilia back in the crazy 60s and 70s, although I vividly remember Public Information Films about not talking to “strangers” who promised to show you puppies. Pop star Alvin Stardust and footballer Kevin Keegan, however, approached kids and showed them how to cross the road correctly in similar films. The moral being: if someone famous comes up to you, it’s fine. If Jimmy Savile had come up to them, it would have been fine.

It’s awkward having to readjust your view of the world. I have been thoroughly enjoying BBC4’s repeats of Top Of The Pops from 1977 and, currently, 1978. They are fascinating social documents, when shown in full. Will they still show the editions hosted by Savile, with his mating yodel and his hands all over the 15-year-olds? I suspect not. Although they did show one with Gary Glitter on earlier this year.

A final thought: when I was about 12, the same age as the diary entry above when Jim’ll Fix It was a fixture and Willy Wonka considered a benevolent bachelor proffering sweets, I made a papier maché Jimmy Savile puppet in art at school. Oddly, I made a “horror” version of Jim, with blood coming out of his mouth and eyes, and an evil face. That’s what childhood is about: innocent fun. I’m glad he never answered my letter.